Hiking the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca

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There is probably no waterfall name more common than “Buttermilk Falls.” However, there is only one Buttermilk Falls State Park in New York and it’s home to one of the most impressive roadside waterfalls in the region.

Buttermilk Falls State Park is located a few miles south of Ithaca in New York’s Finger Lakes. This 800-acre park is one of the region’s most popular spots thanks to the impressive 165-foot waterfall for which the park is named.

In fact, while there are many fantastic waterfalls near Ithaca, there aren’t any waterfalls that are as easy to reach as the impressive Buttermilk Falls.

Buttermilk Falls in Buttermilk Falls State Park near Ithaca, NY
Buttermilk Falls during a period of lower water.

The main parking area for Buttermilk Falls State Park is located two miles south of downtown Ithaca and mere steps from the base of Buttermilk Falls. In fact, the waterfall can be seen while driving into the park without leaving your car.

From the parking area, it’s less than 100 yards to the best view of this impressive waterfall.

Buttermilk Falls is a fan waterfall that features two drops (though only one is easily visible from the base of the falls). The top of the falls is fairly narrow, and the waterfall gets wider as it descends, sliding along the rocks the entire time. While I tend to find plunge waterfalls like the nearby Taughannock Falls more impressive, the size of Buttermilk Falls makes this an incredibly beautiful spot.

Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca, NY
Buttermilk Falls with more water.

At the base of Buttermilk Falls, there is a deep and clear pool that is open for swimming during the summer months. If you are visiting in the summer, but aren’t planning to swim, I’d definitely get here early to avoid the crowds.

While crowds can definitely be an issue here in the summer, the concrete barrier built around the pool makes it incredibly easy to get to a variety of vantage points for viewing or photographing the waterfall.

While you could simply view Buttermilk Falls from below and leave, the Gorge Trail above the main waterfall is well worth taking the time to hike.

Waterfall on the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park in the Finger Lakes
There are many beautiful spots along the Gorge Trail, even when water levels are low.

The Gorge Trail is 0.65 miles long and starts at the base of Buttermilk Fall. Combined with the Rim Trail, it makes for a really nice loop hike that is approximately 1.5 miles long.

The trail starts by crossing Buttermilk Creek below the pool on a bridge with no railings. Fortunately, this is an easy bridge and the water below it is shallow, but be careful crossing the bridge, especially with young children.

The trail then proceeds to climb along the side of Buttermilk Falls, offering some great views of the waterfall, before heading into the woods. This ascent is steep in places and is by far the hardest part of the hike on the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park.

Once you get to the crest of the hill, there are great views of both the hidden upper portion of Buttermilk Falls and the valley looking out over the main drop of the waterfall.

From here, the Gorge Trail follows Buttermilk Creek as it winds its way up the hillside. While the trail continues uphill, you are past the most difficult part of the hike, though make sure to exercise caution on any wet rocks as they might be slippery.

Gorge Trail in Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, New York
A panoramic image of a waterfall with the Gorge Trail next to it.

While most of the waterfalls along the Gorge Trail are relatively small, the chasm, chutes, and pools that the creek has carved into the rock are truly magnificent.

At some spots, the trail passes above the waterfalls, which are hidden deep in crevices in the rock. It’s interesting peering down into the pools and imaging how deep they must be and marveling at the color of the water.

Waterfall on the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, New York
Waterfalls with deep pools can be found on the trail.

After about half a mile, you’ll come to a bridge over Buttermilk Creek. While this is a shortcut to the Rim Trail, I definitely recommend continuing the hike as leaving the trail here will make you miss out on the last two waterfalls on this portion of the gorge trail, which come shortly after the bridge.

Beyond those two waterfalls, the gorge begins to open up, and at about two-thirds of a mile from the base of Buttermilk Falls, you’ll come to a roadway. Cross the bridge over Buttermilk Creek, and take a left onto the Rim Trail to head back towards the parking area.

The Rim Trail is a relatively easy trail, though it does feature a few inclines and declines as it makes its way back to the base of Buttermilk Falls.

This is a beautiful forest trail and offers the chance to experience another aspect of this scenic region, but there’s nothing of note to be seen along the trail.

Fall in Buttermilk Falls State Park
If you take the first bridge, you’ll miss beautiful scenes like this one.

You could also return the way you came, which would be a slightly shorter trek, but the Gorge Trail is fairly narrow, and it might be a bit difficult to pass people on a busy day in the park.

Overall, while the main highlight of Buttermilk Falls State Park is Buttermilk Falls, and you could certainly stop here for 10 minutes and leave, the Gorge Trail is a short hike that’s definitely worth taking the time to complete.

While it might not be able to compete with the gorges at places like Watkins Glen State Park or Stony Brook State Park, it’s still an incredibly beautiful part of the Finger Lakes.

How to Get to Buttermilk Falls State Park

Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park in the Finger Lakes
Make sure to save time to hike the beautiful Gorge Trail.

Buttermilk Falls State Park is located two miles south of downtown Ithaca along Elmira Route (Route 13 and 96) in Tompkins County, New York.

There are several parking areas in the park, but the best one for the falls and Gorge Trail is the lower parking lot at the following coordinates: 42.417128, -76.521140.

From the parking area, it’s less than 100 yards to the base of Buttermilk Falls and the start of the Gorge Trail.

There is an $8 admission fee per vehicle that is charged from 4/20 through 10/20.

The Gorge Trail closes to the public during the winter months, but it’s possible to access the base of Buttermilk Falls throughout the year. In fact, if you want to see a frozen waterfall in the Finger Lakes, this is a great choice since it’s so easy to reach.

Looking for more places to visit nearby? Check out Ithaca Falls, Waverly Glen Falls, the Corning Museum of Glass, and Wells Falls.

Hiking the Gorge Trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park in Ithaca, New York


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